At the end of a Christian service, the priest often pronounces a ‘benediction’, a blessing; words like Paul’s in Philippians 4: ‘Be anxious for nothing […] and the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus’. Soothing words in an age of violence.
But I am moving too fast. Is violence, war, the opposite of peace?
Peace, like many English words, is somewhat vague, or broad, whichever way you want to look at it. Consider, for example, what it isn’t—its opposites. It is the opposite of war, of violence, of mental anxiety and worry, of strained family relationships, of too much noise, of a busy schedule, of a lack of finances when there are bills to pay. It is the opposite of all those life-pressures that unbalance us, that disturb human equilibrium.
But, going back to the pronouncement of the blessing, ‘you’—at least in English—is also a vague word. Is it plural or singular? Who is being blessed?
We live in a ‘singular’ society. In the Christian world, for example, the Gospel, the ‘good news’, is often couched in individualistic terms. The good news is that Jesus offers a personal insurance policy, the main risk covered is being declared ‘evil’ by God and sent to hell. Jesus will make sure you are protected against any unforeseen end-time complications. Those who have bothered to sign up to the policy tend to look down on those who have not.
However, the good news in the biblical narrative is both more nuanced and more social. There is a strong focus on communities—Israel and the Church being prime examples. Paul’s words about God creating a ‘new man’ (Rom. 12.5; Eph. 2.15) highlight the social dimension—the positive and mutually-constructive nature of social interaction that is inherent in human identity. As John Donne said, ‘no man is an island’. Put simply, the pronounced benediction is not simply for personal consumption; it is a prayer for social peace, communal peace. A prayer that God would protect us from all the ‘opposites’ to peace listed above.
But what does that word ‘us’ imply? Who are ‘we’? Sadly, for many Christians, it means ‘those of us who have signed up for the insurance policy’. We are ‘in’ the cooperative; ‘we’ know the truth; ‘we’ are right. The problem we face is that the benediction has become a prayer not to protect us from the opposites of peace, but from cultural ‘opposites’.
This ‘us’ and ‘them’ language has within it the seeds of violence simply because those who are ‘in’ feel threatened by those from ‘outside’ who have the potential to destroy the peace of the community. The solution, it seems to me, is to widen the community; to recognise that ‘we’ are the human family, for did not God create all humans in God’s image?
My point is this. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, did not die for Christians (Rom. 5.8); on the contrary, he gave his life for the oppressed, the outsiders, those living violent lives, those trapped in slavery to the forces of evil—those oppressed and enslaved by the ‘opposites’ of peace. In refusing to ‘take up arms against a sea of troubles’, he brought peace—at great personal cost—to a world without peace, and with no hope of peace.
If we claim to be followers of the Prince of Peace, should we not be peacemakers? Are not peacemakers ‘the sons of God’ (Matt. 5.9)? But how do we promote peace in these troubled times? The answer is simple: we become peaceful. First, through the presence of the Prince of Peace in our lives as individuals—the one who said, ‘don’t let your hearts be troubled; I have overcome the world’. Second, to realise that our job is not to ‘overcome the world’ as such (Jesus has already done that); our job is to bring the peace of Christ to the world.
Where, or how, does ‘peacelessness’ start? At root, it comes when individuals or communities experience the oppression of others: deprivation in the form of the withholding of resources—water, finances, education; or discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, or wealth—that is, being the ‘wrong’ colour, believing the ‘wrong’ things, having the ‘wrong’ sexual orientation, or living on the wrong side of the tracks. Deprivation and discrimination are fuel for, and are fuelled by, violence.
Acts of violence and oppression are always preceded by words of discrimination and violence; words that inflame and add fuel to the fire. As James said, the tongue can do as much damage as a Californian fire-storm (Jas. 3.5). In contrast, acts of peace and reconciliation are always preceded by words of peace, words that diffuse tension and pour oil on troubled water.
I heard recently that 95% of the Muslims who have ever converted to Christianity have done so in the 21st century—that is, since the year 2000. The prime catalyst for the defection is that most Muslims are people of peace who are horrified at the violence in their own religion. My worry is this: will they also find violence within contemporary Christianity?
Paul made the point that we will reap what we sow; and Jesus curtly dismissed Peter’s attempt to protect him from crucifixion by saying: ‘Put away your sword; those who use the sword will die by the sword’ (Gal. 6.7, Matt. 26.52). Most of us do not wave swords or guns, but we all own a tongue and—these days—computers and social media that can give that ‘tongue’ a platform for its ideology. I read with increasing horror the violent and discriminatory language of Christians; not just against Muslims and those who are not like ‘us’, but against other Christians—so many are swift to criticise those who think differently.
The usual response to historical Christian violence is to say that it does not represent ‘real’ Christianity but is an aberration, a distortion. It seems to me—as Pope Francis recently remarked—that there is idolatry in all religions; distortions that still lead to violence. This should come as no surprise: the Church is, after all, a human institution; we may be destined to become the perfect ‘bride of Christ’, but, in the meantime, the church is saddled with people like you and me—ordinary people longing for peace and not particularly perfect.
I am not suggesting that we become mute and fail to speak out against injustice and evil. I simply want to ask you to think before speaking or posting words that might lead to violence and discrimination; to ask how Jesus’s advice to love our enemies and pray for them might work out in practice (Matt. 5.43–48). If we claim to follow the Prince of Peace, should we not be peaceful? As James said (rather bluntly): ‘If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless’ (Jas. 1.26).